Subtle Matters in the Portrait Photography of Tomek Jankowski
When browsing Tomek Jankowski’s website, you may have a feeling that it belongs to at least four photographers. Portraiture, fashion, street life, fine art — there seems to be no genre Tomek would fail at.
This interview is mostly dedicated to Tom’s most meaningful projects, Tissue and B Album. I will not dwell too long on each of them, you will see and feel everything by reading on. Let me just say, that Tissue is one of the most impressive pieces of art I’ve personally ever seen. This said, I was really surprised to learn that some European galleries refused to exhibit Tissue pleading the project is too controversial. What?? Let me tell you what I find controversial. In 2008 I visited a large art center in Kiev, Ukraine and one of the halls was dedicated to installations of cow heads in formalin and pictures made of thousands of flies. This is undoubtedly a matter of personal perception and taste, but as long as such projects were fine to display to the public (the entrance was free!), I’m sure such an insightful and philosophical projects like Tissue could and should make it to the art galleries. I really hope this article helps bring Tissue to the art galleries of Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev, followed by the rest of European capitals.
Now enjoy the interview and don’t forget to share your impressions in the comments.
Tomek, please tell us about yourself. Where did you grow, what’s your background and how did you get started in the photography?
I’m Polish freelance photographer / designer. My creative and visual journey started about 10 years ago with graphic design followed by reportage and street photo sessions. Recently, I’m more into portraiture, commercial and fashion-related photography. Collaborating with models, stylists, fashion designers and model agencies. I’m also designing for companies and individuals (mostly identity and web design). You can find selected works on my portfolio website: www.tomekjankowski.net, my recent photographic project — B ALBUM is also available on issuu platform: www.issuu.com/tomekjankowski/docs/b_album
One series in your portfolio is radically different from others. This is, of course, Tissue. I must admit that this is one of the most impressive photography work I have ever seen. Please tell us more about this project. You mentioned that you’d like to continue the project with a book and international exhibitions. Any progress in that?
The project started in mid 2008 and it took about 3 months to complete. Initial concept and materials were provided by Bogna Rzad, stylist and theatre costume designer. She was fascinated with old drawings of Leonardo da Vinci and plant photography of Karl Blossfeldt. The project evolved further, under my photographic direction. The project consists of imaginary phases of a human body’s development, starting with birth (Fetus), moving to adulthood and the procreational phase (Viscera Femininum, Viscera Masculinum) and ending with death (Rigor Mortis).
I was able to use my visual expertise, grasp of light and shadow, and intimate interaction with the models to create the finished piece. There are still plans for printing an album with project photographs, but the amount of work is very big and I don’t want to compromise the impact of the story and the quality of print. So I’m still waiting for the proper sponsor who will provide enough funds to do it in the best possible way.
Unfortunately, the exhibitions part appeared to be much more difficult. I’m aiming at the established places in Europe capital cities, but so far, the big exhibition houses rejected the idea, finding it too controversial (?). It appears, you can freely promote pornography, sexism and violence in modern art, but the mystery of human body and death is still a tabu.
B Album. Beautiful model, beautiful idea and execution — to me, “B” stands for “Bravo” here. As a photographer who often works with fashion agencies, you must often meet professional models, but you did a stand-alone project with Basia. What was special about her? How did the idea of the series come to you? Do you have plans for further cooperation?
I always wanted to create a project which will close in certain cycle of time or seasons. When I first met Basia, I knew that we were born to do this. It was instinctive connection. Basia is a complete model. Her natural beauty and strong, dynamic personality made our work a yearlong adventure. She has an unique gift. It’s enough for her to wake-up in the morning, comb her hair and put on an old sweater — and she’s ready to shoot, looking fresh and beautiful. A lot of supermodels need a heavy make-up work to maintain their usual photo look. Basia doesn’t need anything. And this was also the main theme of the B ALBUM project — no designer rags, stylized hair or make-up. Just pure, raw beauty of Basia.
I’d like to touch upon your portraiture photography. On your website you mention that faces need to “talk” to you both aesthetically and emotionally during session work. Tell us more about your typical shoot process. Do you actually need to be familiar with the person to make a good portrait of them? And what is a good portrait to you?
I don’t need to be familiar with a model in any special way to make a good portrait. When meeting people or shooting photographs, I rely totally on my instincts. And usually, I need a few minutes to know if I have any aesthetical or emotional relation with another person. And in my opinion, both factors are essential to make a good portrait.
Where do you draw inspiration? What are your tastes in music, literature, cinema?
Maybe it’s trivial, but the best inspiration is everyday life. Sounds and images of my intimate home environment, street life, meeting people while I’m travelling. I’m mostly listening to oldschool stuff like Zappa, King Crimson, Jethro Tull. A lot of modern jazz, too, like Esbjorn Svensson Trio. I spent my whole youth in punk / hardcore scene, riding a skateboard, so on my everyday menu you can also find Agnostic Front, Madball, Rollins Band, Primus and some prog-metal stuff like Mastodon. I love SF and my favorite writers are Asimov, Lem, Herbert, Williams. Favorite movie directors: Kubrick, Herzog, Cronenberg, Aronofsky.
Your portfolio reveals your diversity as a photographer, and you also a designer! Are there any genres you don’t feel comfortable in? :) In general, are visual arts your only creative outlet?
Yes, visual arts are my life and since my early childhood I’ve always felt the need to show in graphical way what’s going on in my head. Being still in elementary school, I received my first Smena 8M from my parents. Soon after this, I created a homemade darkroom and then, I already knew that this will be my way of life. Besides visual arts, I’ve always wanted to be a guitar player in hardcore / crossover / progmetal band and produce awesome solos, but somehow my genetic code was focused on visuals only and absorbing sounds — not producing them :)
Stephen King used his wife as a special reader and critic of his books. What about you? Do you have anyone to review your works before opening them up for public?
No and never will have. My work is my intimate, personal vision which co-exists peacefully with my mind. And no one can interfere with it. Public review is a different story. I like people to build their personal stories and interpret my work in 100 different ways. I can learn a lot about peoples’ minds this way.
What gear do you use? Did you face any technical challenges working on Tissue?
I use Canon bodies with almost constantly attached 35mm/F1.4 to them. When I need a different depth of field or I’m in a slight range, I use 70-200/F2.8.
When an idea comes to my mind there are no challenges I can’t overcome. Because most of the Tissue project photographs were taken underwater, it took me and Bogna some time to get a watertank which will fit dynamically moving human body. We did it and I think the outcome was outstanding.
What would you advise to budding photographers?
I’m not a master or a mentor. Just another person on his photographic life path. What I’ve learned so far is the need to be honest to yourself and your viewers. Never attach a philosophy or a story to images that have none. Don’t kill your shots with computer graphics and then name them «photographs» — 90% of world’s photographers are doing this, try to maintain photography’s purity. On the other hand, don’t use analog equipment to cover your lack of ideas or because it’s trendy — a badly composed and badly lightened photo is still a bad photo and it doesn’t matter if it was developed with all those hipster film dust and scratches. Never — I mean never use Instagram or Hipstamatic! These pseudoartistic filter apps kill photography! It really takes much more than a phone with vintage filter algorithm to become even a decent photographer.